Double Fault by Lionel Shriver


First Published: 1997 by Serpent’s Tail
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “the world was dense with losers. How many comers climbed to the pinnacles of their professions? The vast majority foundered, so why was there no spokesman for the the second-rate, the runner-up, the penultimate, the disheartened horde? Would no one defend their right to hurl their rackets?”

Lionel Shriver is probably one of my favourite living writers: never easy reads, her books deal with some difficult subjects but still manage to captivate and I admire hugely the fact that she never shies away from uncomfortable truths and isn’t afraid to lay bare the skull beneath the skin. Indeed, it’s a testament to Shriver’s appeal that I picked up this novel at all, since it’s set in the world of professional tennis – a sport about which I know little and care even less. Fortunately, although Double Fault does go into detail about the minutiae of the tournament system, it’s about so much more than just tennis. Above all it’s about ambition, particularly female ambition in a male-dominated sphere. Shriver’s flawed but believable protagonist is Willy Novinsky, a mid-ranked player with big ambitions and a passion for the game that defines her whole life but who, already in her twenties, needs to progress fast to become top 100 in this most demanding of sports. Willy’s world is turned upside down when she meets and falls in love with Eric, an amateur player who also has big ideas and – with her help – begins making waves. From one perspective their relationship is ideal: they can support each other and nobody understands better devotion to the sport than another tennis obsessive, but as Eric’s career takes off and Willy’s begins to flounder what begins as a perfect partnership morphs into a painful rivalry.

Plot is rather thin on the ground in this novel – don’t expect the sort of epic twist Shriver delivers in Kevin – but all the same this is a surprisingly engrossing book. It’s train wreck fiction I guess; there’s something compelling about following the inevitable deterioration of Willy’s marriage. Willy is an interesting character: very unsympathetic in many ways yet it’s hard not to care for her. You don’t need to be a tennis fan to enjoy this book, since it goes much deeper than exposing the ugliness and inequality of the game. Double Fault is a thought-provoking analysis of competition in marriage, which – if we’re brutally honest – is something that touches every relationship at times, however solid.

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